Lewis Jumps on Police Background Checks

Posted April 9, 2008 at 6:53pm

House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) on Wednesday criticized a recent department-wide criminal background check conducted by the Capitol Police, as he and other panel Republicans questioned whether officials have the authority to search the arrest records of the entire force.

But Chief Phillip Morse and Assistant Chief Dan Nichols defended the check, arguing it was in line with department regulations and necessary to ensure that the integrity of the force is maintained.

“Capitol Police officers understand that they are held to the highest standard of conduct,” said Morse, testifying before the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “I cannot see it coming as a surprise to anyone in law enforcement.”

Overseen by USCP Inspector General Carl Hoecker, the background check took place earlier this year to verify that all officers and civilian employees were in line with a policy requiring them to inform their supervisors if they are arrested or indicted for any crime.

Officials decided to conduct the search after concerns emerged that a few officers had not told their supervisors they had been arrested, Hoecker said.

It wasn’t the first time background checks have been conducted of officers and civilian employees. All employees undergo a background check before they are hired, Morse said, and similar background checks have been done in the past.

The search process itself was pretty straightforward, officials said. Names and birthdays of USCP employees were individually entered into a police database to check if any employee had been arrested or indicted for anything other than minor traffic violations, Hoecker said. If so, the names were verified to ensure that they were indeed police employees.

Officers and civilian employees were not informed that the checks had taken place, Morse said. But there is no rule requiring the department to inform people when they decide to conduct a search, he added.

“There are things that go along with working for a law enforcement agency, with wearing this badge,” Nichols said. “The standard has to be held to.”

That didn’t satisfy Lewis and other Republicans on the subcommittee, as Members questioned whether such a uniform check was needed, especially for civilian workers. Conducting the checks without informing employees beforehand raises serious concerns over violations of privacy and Fourth Amendment rights, Lewis said.

“I can see a revolution going on among our officers,” Lewis said.

Subcommittee ranking member Tom Latham (R-Iowa) compared the checks to a “fishing expedition,” and Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) spoke even more strongly, calling the check “an outrageous abuse of power.”

“Why would you look into someone’s background without telling them?” LaHood said. “There’s absolutely nothing that gives you the right to look into a non-law-enforcement background.”

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, himself a former Capitol Police chief, criticized the GOP’s opposition to the checks. In an interview, Gainer noted that the checks are merely a search of criminal arrest records.

“It’s not a full-blown background check that gets into personal information,” Gainer said, adding that the check “goes to the core expectation that every cop has to a fellow officer.”

Gainer, who sits on the Capitol Police Board, said he is hoping the Republicans who criticized the policy did so simply because “they did not have the proper information.”

“It’s disappointing that the people who are keepers of liberty up here wouldn’t be more sympathetic to what the chief is doing,” he said.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said after the hearing that employees who work for the department — especially uniformed officers who carry weapons — should be aware that the department will occasionally conduct the checks.

It would be poor policy to prevent the department from conducting the background checks, which are another part of keeping Capitol Hill safe, she added.

Still, Wasserman Schultz asked the department to provide further details about the background checks to the subcommittee by April 16, including information on why the search was done and what authority the department had to conduct it.

There isn’t any immediate indication that officers themselves are upset by the search. Matt Tighe, president of the Capitol Police labor union, said the background check conducted by the force sounded “routine.”

“I always thought they did them to begin with, and I hope they would do them,” Tighe said.

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Wednesday’s hearing might have focused on the background check issue, but it was actually intended to analyze the department’s fiscal 2009 budget request.

Capitol Police officials are asking for approximately $334 million, an 18 percent increase in funds. It’s a relatively significant increase — a 10 percent boost is perhaps the highest increase the department will get, with a 5 percent jump more likely.

But Morse argued the additional funds are needed to meet unique, uncontrolled needs the department is preparing to face in 2009, including the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center, the presidential inauguration and implementing the merger with the Library of Congress police force.

One thing not included in this year’s request is money to update the department’s radio system, which is about 25 years old and not equipped to allow officers to communicate with nearby police jurisdictions.

Members already have appropriated $10 million for the radios. The department is set to present its full proposal for a new system to the Capitol Police Board next week, Morse said.